Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4776
Whether her works are set in the present or in the past, in Europe or in West Virginia, Mary Lee Settle’s preoccupations are always the same: the quest for freedom and the pursuit of love in a threatening, changing social environment. Like a Greek dramatist, she employs a background of...
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- Critical Essays
Whether her works are set in the present or in the past, in Europe or in West Virginia, Mary Lee Settle’s preoccupations are always the same: the quest for freedom and the pursuit of love in a threatening, changing social environment. Like a Greek dramatist, she employs a background of ordinary people who ignore the issues and the dangers of their time and place, who accept their intellectual and social prisons, blindly assuming that all is for the best, no matter what persons or what ideals they betray. In contrast to this chorus are a few exceptional people who are incapable of that blind and easy acceptance. Whatever the social cost, they insist on honesty. Whatever the political and economic cost, they seek freedom. Their ideals are ultimately democratic, for they will not judge others by narrow social standards or limit their associations by social formulas. Because they are uncompromising, they are destined to be misunderstood, ridiculed, deserted, even betrayed, but they may also be followed, admired, and loved.
Most of Settle’s novels fall into three categories: the southern novels, such as her first two published works, The Love Eaters and The Kiss of Kin, as well as The Clam Shell and Charley Bland; the Beulah Quintet, five historical novels published between 1956 and 1982, out of chronological order; and the European novels, the award-winning Blood Tie, set in contemporary Turkey, and Celebration, set in London but tracing the past lives of its characters to Kurdistan, Hong Kong, and Africa. Settle’s final work, I, Roger Williams, is a historical novel, though it was not linked to the Beulah Quintet except thematically. Like all of her previous novels, I, Roger Williams revisits the past in a search for social reform and personal redemption.
The Love Eaters
The Love Eaters is set in Canona, West Virginia, among the country-club people who will appear again in the final novel of the Beulah Quintet, The Killing Ground—Anne Randolph Potter, for example, the drawling Virginian, and her “real American” husband, George Potter. The men work, talk, and drink; the women decorate their homes, plan community projects, talk, and drink. With her fine ear for dialogue, Settle captures their sterile lives by carefully recording that talk, the beauty-shop gossip blaring under the hair dryers, the brief exchanges between husbands and wives, between mothers and daughters, between men in the country-club locker room. The marriages in Canona have become the routine relationships of people who live politely in the same houses, like the Potters and their friends the Dodds, Jim and Martha. Because she was tired of the meaningless talk, Martha married Jim, and when she feels alone in their silent home, she reminds herself that she got exactly what she wanted. What Jim himself wanted was a quiet routine; knowing this, Martha has not even permitted herself to bear him a child.
The bored women of the Canona Country Club have brightened their lives by organizing an acting company, and it is through this venture that one of the two disrupting forces in The Love Eaters comes to Canona. As the novel opens, the itinerant director Hamilton Sacks descends from the train, accompanied by his devoted mother. Sacks is a physical and emotional cripple who delights in “playing” the people he meets as if he were playing to an audience, as indeed he is, and who has no sense of moral responsibility for the effects his wicked hints may have on their lives. The second disrupting force comes, ironically, through the placid Jim Dodd. Through a letter, he has learned the whereabouts of his son by a previous marriage, about whom he had never told his childless present wife. With the arrival of charming, slender, handsome, and, above all, lovable Selby Dodd in Canona, the lives of Jim and Martha are changed forever.
In Settle’s modern version of Seneca the Younger’s play Phaedra (c. 40-55 c.e.; English translation, 1581), the passion of a menopausal woman, trapped in the aimless days and nights of a society that thinks in stereotypes and in a marriage whose value has been its placid silence, is no more surprising than the fact that George Potter keeps the local beautician as his mistress. Martha’s upcountry old mother is familiar with the yearnings of middle-aged women, familiar enough to warn that infatuations with young men, while not surprising, are generally unwise. Martha is not the only one who is taken with Selby Dodd, who, as Hamilton comments, lives on love and, without exerting himself, attracts women of all ages, as well as men such as Hamilton; Martha’s contemporary Anne Randolph Potter and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Sally Bee Potter, vie for Selby from the first time they meet him. There is, then, very little shock in speculations about Martha’s feelings. It is Martha who inflicts the punishment on herself, and her emphasis is not on the immorality of incestuous feelings or fear of a heroic husband—for neither moral rectitude nor heroism is common in Canona society—but on her own need for Selby’s physical and emotional love. As Hippolytus, Selby is neither morally outraged nor committed to a young princess. He trifles with Sally Bee Potter under the same rules that she observes in teasing him, but no love is involved, for Selby, like Hamilton, is too narcissistic to love anyone but himself and too opportunistic to be troubled by morality. Because his long-range plans include acquiring as much of Jim’s property as possible, however, Selby cannot afford to risk angering Jim, and his pose must remain that of loving son and considerate stepson.
The differences between the traditional tragic characters in this account of a stepmother’s passion for her stepson and Settle’s characters, who lack the tragic stature and the rigid moral sense of those in the earlier versions of the story, indicate the diminished standards of modern society, which imprisons its members within patterns that have no moral dimension but merely the force of mindless custom. At the end of the novel, Martha at least briefly takes responsibility for Selby’s death, but instead of dying, she loses her mind. Jim, too, escapes from reality; having made his dead son into a hero, he waits for Martha to become her old self.
The Kiss of Kin
In The Kiss of Kin, the imprisoning society is a southern family, brought together for a funeral. Into this society comes Abraham Passmore, summoned to claim his inheritance and determined also to discover the wrong that his father’s people once did to his mother. By the end of the novel, Abraham has forced the members of the family to admit the truth, but it is obvious that they will not therefore become honest. Only the cousin who leaves with him has been forced by the day’s events to reject the family, as well as her similarly dishonest Yankee lover, in order to find her own freedom.
While entertaining, The Kiss of Kin is too clearly an adaptation of the light comedy that Settle had first written. Like The Love Eaters, it is skillfully constructed, hilariously satirical, accurate in dialogue; avoiding authorial comment, it depends on dramatic scenes and on the meditations of the few sensitive characters to comment on the society that is its target. At this point, Settle made an important turn in her literary career. She produced the first of the Beulah Quintet novels, which plunged into the historical past to find the roots of that southern society realized in her first two novels.
O Beulah Land
Settle’s first two historical novels were written in chronological order. O Beulah Land is set in what was later to be West Virginia at the time of the French and Indian War; Know Nothing, in the 1840’s and 1850’s. It is significant that each of these novels takes place just before a momentous historic event—in the first case, the American Revolution; in the second, the Civil War. In both of them, exceptional people understand the issues of their time and respond heroically. Others either insist on living in a changeless world, clinging to a familiar pattern, or blindly refuse to admit that change is inevitable.
In O Beulah Land, a massacre results from the insistence of two Englishmen, at opposite ends of the social scale, that the New World pattern is no different from the pattern of the Old World. “Squire” Josiah Devotion Raglan steals, as he did in England; the arrogant British commander is rude, as he could afford to be in England. Unfortunately, the American Indians, whose tomahawk is stolen and whose pride is offended, are not governed by Old World rules, and the massacre is the outcome. Significantly, Hannah Bridewell, a transported prostitute and thief, survives captivity by the American Indians and reaches safety in the arms of a frontiersman, Jeremiah Catlett. Adapting to the New World, they create a marriage outside the church, which has not yet come to the wilderness, and later defend their home through the justifiable murder of the blackmailing Squire, who once again has miscalculated in the New World.
In the Lacey family, Settle again contrasts the selfish and the blind with those perceptive, freedom-loving individuals who refuse to enslave themselves to an old pattern. Sally Lacey, the spoiled, pretentious wife of Jonathan Lacey, refuses to adapt to frontier life. Failing in her lifelong crusade to make over her homely neighbors, Sally at last goes mad. In contrast, the printer Jarcey Pentacost has lost his shop rather than tailor his efforts to the values of a community already stagnating; for him, the frontier means freedom.
In Know Nothing, although the historical background is very different, the descendants of the characters in O Beulah Land must choose between enslavement to old patterns that no longer suit the changing country and emerging new patterns. Another Sally Lacey and her husband, Brandon, must move west because the plantation economic system has failed them. Unable to adapt, Brandon kills himself, and Sally retreats permanently into the contemplation of her heredity. Other casualties of inherited patterns are Johnny Catlett, who cannot escape from his role as slave owner and finally as Confederate officer; Lewis Catlett, the prisoner of his religious obsession, whose abolitionism, the result of his mother’s influence, has in it no grain of compassion; Melinda Lacey and Sara Lacey, both trapped in miserable marriages from which, in a society that does not permit divorce, only death can release them. Already in Know Nothing, the same kind of social prisons from which American immigrants escaped have been established in the New World, and the quest for freedom has become more and more difficult.
Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday
In 1964, the Viking Press published Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday, which was to have been the concluding work in the “Beulah Trilogy.” In that book, Hannah McKarkle, who is named for the heroic Hannah of O Beulah Land, comes to Canona, West Virginia, originally to see her brother and then to investigate his death. During her visit, she begins to explore the past of her family and of her region, thus, in a sense, becoming Mary Lee Settle herself. Unfortunately, the publishers so cut Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday that Settle found the relationships obscured. Eventually, she was to add two volumes to the Beulah works, Prisons and The Scapegoat, and to rewrite Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday, creating the novel published as The Killing Ground.
Still pursuing the democratic ideal, Settle returned to Great Britain, where she tracked down a chance reference to John Lilburne, the leader of a group of radicals, a number of whom were executed by the forces of Oliver Cromwell, who were averse to the “Leveling” principles of true egalitarians. It is the story of one of these executed radicals that Settle tells in her seventeenth century novel Prisons, which becomes the first novel in the Beulah Quintet, viewed chronologically. Its hero, the brave, idealistic Johnny Church, enmeshed in amoral public policy, refuses to save his own life by becoming Cromwell’s agent among the men who see Johnny as a natural leader. It is the descendants of Johnny Church, both literal and spiritual, who continue to fight for freedom in Settle’s historical and contemporary novels.
The Clam Shell
Meanwhile, Settle had published another novel set in the contemporary South, The Clam Shell, which is set among the same country-club crowd as The Love Eaters. In Canona in 1966, Anne Randolph Potter, “Plain” George Potter, and their friends are involved in their usual rituals. This time, however, the disrupting influence is one of their own friends, the womanprotagonist, who watches them watching football, drinking, and reminiscing. Unlike Martha Dodd, she learned young that she was unable to fit the mold of her friends in Canona, just as she could not fit the mold of the Virginia finishing school to which she was sent. Musing on her youth, remembering her unjust treatment at the finishing school, she realizes that she long ago ceased wishing to be accepted by mindless, restrictive upper-class Virginia or West Virginia society. Like Abraham Passmore, she is content to be an honest exile.
In literary quality, The Clam Shell is one of Settle’s less effective novels. Satirical and often angry, it divides its characters into two groups: those who understand life and those who, from dullness or from choice, choose not to understand but, instead, to persecute those who do.
After this simplistic novel came one of Settle’s best, Blood Tie, a contemporary work set on a Turkish island. The protagonist—idealistic, innocent Ariadne—has come to Ceramos to recover from a midlife divorce. There she becomes acquainted with a group of expatriates, the sensationalist Basil, a German archaeologist, a Jewish bar owner, a wealthy American girl, and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent Frank Proctor. None of the expatriates understands the language well enough to realize the disapproval, contempt, and ridicule with which they are viewed by the natives, nor have they any idea of the intrigue with which they are surrounded. The archaeologist, for example, does not guess that a hunted university student is hiding in the sacred caverns that he cannot find.
As the Turks manipulate the expatriates for gain, the expatriates utilize one another and the Turks for the sensations they seek. Through the corruption walks Ariadne, mothering the spoiled American girl and the mute Turkish child, struggling with her sense of rejection and with her own troublesome sexuality, unintentionally shocking the Turks, who misinterpret her actions. When she and the other expatriates at last leave the island, the chief of police praises her because, of all the visitors, only Ariadne tried to see the Turks as individuals rather than as background figures in an exotic environment. Although Ariadne does not know it, she has made a difference to the troubled, mute child, for at last he is able to speak.
In The Scapegoat, published three years after Blood Tie, Settle again creates complex characters who have a moral sense. Foolish, innocent, and idealistic though they may be, such individuals do provide some hope for the future. Like its predecessors in the Beulah Quintet, The Scapegoat takes place at a time of confrontation, on a single day, June 7, 1912, when the hostility between British mine owners and their hired thugs on one hand and the miners with their union leaders on the other results in armed conflict. In the middle of the conflict are the mine owners, Beverley and Ann Eldridge Lacey, who hope to keep their mine, their home, and their friendships apart from the approaching violence. Ironically, the idealism of their daughter Lily Ellen Lacey, home from college, leads directly to the violence. Her friendship with a young striker is exploited to inflame both the strikebreakers and the strikers. As the day develops, basically good people do evil. To save her son, Lily’s friend sacrifices a new immigrant, the “scapegoat” of the title; to help the friend escape, Lily and Beverley take advantage of the death of the scapegoat, thus in a sense participating in the guilt.
In her later books, however, Settle deals more realistically with guilt, seemingly recognizing that in this world every act is tainted. Rather than expecting her exceptional characters to be flawless and fully cognizant of the situation in which they are placed, Settle is more compassionate toward the well-meaning, even if, like Lily, they unintentionally play into the hands of clearly evil forces. Granted, ignorance cannot exempt one from guilt. Lily’s service as a nurse in World War I, which results in her death, is a course deliberately chosen because she must take responsibility for her tragic blindness. Nevertheless, Settle seems in her later works to be castigating fewer characters for their blindness and permitting more of them the possibility of redemption.
The Killing Ground
In the final volume of the Beulah Quintet, The Killing Ground, Settle’s writer Hannah McKarkle sums up what she has learned of history. In clash after clash, people struggle for freedom. Often, as Johnny Church learned in the English Civil War, as the Laceys saw in the American mine wars, both sides in a confrontation seek power, and it is a third group that must struggle for real freedom. Whatever its pretensions, every society is made up of many who are blind, often for their own comfort, and of many who, though perceptive, are unprincipled. Because of that convenient or deliberate blindness, the rebels, the seekers for freedom, must always struggle, first to see the truth and then, and only then, to act upon it.
Because critics were becoming aware of Settle’s themes by the time The Killing Ground was published, they were able to see justification for the shifts in point of view and the movements back and forth in time that can make her work difficult. In The Scapegoat, for example, Settle tells her story through the eyes of several different characters, whose testimony, weighed and judged by the reader, can add up to objective truth. Similarly, in Blood Tie, the mutual misunderstandings between the Turkish and the expatriate populations are dramatized by frequent changes in point of view, often revealing opposite interpretations of events and statements. Thus, the thematic emphasis on the pursuit of truth is exemplified by Settle’s own method of revealing the truth.
Moreover, because, as William Faulkner believed, the truth of any one moment involves the past of an individual, a community, a people, and because the human mind never lives purely in present consciousness, it was now becoming evident to critics that Settle’s frequent shifts in time are also a technical expression of a thematic emphasis. In a comic novel such as The Kiss of Kin, the thrust of the work is toward the revelation of a single element in the past, and therefore the dramatic technique is effective. In a complicated novel such as The Killing Ground or Blood Tie, however, in which characters attempt to understand the present while always being conscious of the past, the shifts in time are both effective and thematically necessary.
Settle’s increasing technical mastery and her developing theme of redemption are both evident in Celebration. The six chapters of the novel alternate between London and three distant areas where various characters once lived: Kurdistan, Hong Kong, and Africa. The process through which the main characters must go is that of the Mass: an honest facing of the past, the acceptance of guilt, repentance, redemption, and joy. Each of the characters has crossed what Settle terms “the Styx,” directly confronting death and despair. For Teresa Cerrutti, it was the death of her husband in Malakastan, followed by her own surgery for cancer. For Noel, Lord Atherton, it was a disastrous encounter with a Chinese lover in Hong Kong. For Ewen Stuart McLeod, it was the betrayal by his uncle, who trapped him in an unsavory African expedition and involved him in the murder of innocent people.
The movement toward a joyful future is suggested in the fourth of Settle’s chapters, when her major characters and their friends together watch the first moon landing, which is an affirmation of humankind’s possibilities. That chapter, however, is followed by the darkest account in the novel, Ewen’s African adventure, revealing humanity at its treacherous, murderous worst. Ewen’s life was saved by the black Roman Catholic priest Pius Deng, who is also now in London, one of the friends.
In the final chapter, there is a celebration of death and of life. The priest is killed by London muggers, but as the guilt-stricken youngest of them comments, he died in a state of grace. Furthermore, the commitment for which he had hoped, the marriage of Ewen and Teresa, concludes the novel. Under the influence of the saintly Pius and through their ever-increasing love for one another, the London friends have made the Styx not a river of death, but one of life.
In Charley Bland, Settle returns once more to the class tensions between the country-club people and the intellectuals, both surrounded by the poor of Appalachia, this time in the decades just after World War II. Characters in the novel suggest ghosts of Settle’s own biography as well as their counterparts in The Love Eaters and The Clam Shell. In fact, some of them are the same characters. Also as in The Clam Shell, the central figure, a young novelist, finds herself drawn back into the world of small-town society, only to learn that she can never be part of that world again. Her life in postwar England and France has expanded her vision so greatly that she and the country clubbers no longer speak the same language.
Like others of Settle’s characters, she is shaped by her origins as the daughter of a well-to-do mine owner. Thus, although her father once lost his money and although she has long felt freed from any obligations to her remote, unloving mother, when her mother tries to arrange a match between her daughter and the eligible Charley Bland, she feels powerless to resist the arrangements. Bland’s family have always been both friends and rivals of her own, and Bland himself is almost a southern stereotype—the irresistibly charming bachelor, a “devil with women” whose only flaw appears to be that he drinks too much.
The intended love affair occurs, and the narrator finds herself moving into old patterns of social life she thought she had left long before. Even as she enjoys the romance, however, she recognizes that Charley Bland is more deeply flawed than he first appeared, partly because his alcoholism is much more serious than anyone admits and partly because he has no intention of defying his mother, who intends to use him as her protector and her source of entertainment as long as she lives. The narrator is only one in his long series of romances. At the same time, the narrator gradually realizes that the people she used to know intend to freeze her out of their world. It is a world she is ready to leave again but that she will leave with great pain, because she loves its mountains and hollows, its seasons, and the language of its people.
Choices takes the form of a memoir of Melinda Kregg Dunston, who looks back on the eighty-two years of her life to examine the choices that have shaped it. They have been the choices of one whose compassion has always moved her to support the oppressed, first through her Red Cross work in support of striking coal miners (the source of her family’s wealth), later her fight against Fascism in Spain in 1937, and later still in her involvement in the Civil Rights movement. These are issues that engaged Settle’s own passions as an unapologetic liberal in a conservative community. This novel emphasizes the potency of the choices a person such as Dunston can make, choices that bring one through danger to a heightened recognition of the beauty and fragility of life.
I, Roger Williams
Like her earlier work Prisons, Settle’s final novel dramatizes the political and religious conflicts that tore England apart during the seventeenth century. However, while both books deal with the struggle for freedom of speech, in I, Roger Williams the author approaches her theme very differently. The title character of this novel is a famous man, known to every schoolchild as the founder of Rhode Island. Moreover, as the work’s subtitle—A Fragment of Autobiography—indicates, this is more than a historical novel; it is an attempt to write in the spirit and the voice of the protagonist. Settle’s achievement is even more impressive because in order to accomplish this task, she has to show how Williams’s thought processes developed over the course of eighty-five years.
The novel begins in 1676, when Williams is seventy-three. He has just seen the town he founded go up in smoke, burned down by young warriors of the Native American tribe whose friendship he had treasured for so many years. Williams himself has lost everything, including his beloved library. However, he also feels a deep sense of remorse, for he had become a captain of the militia, fighting against the very tribe he still thinks of as his family. As he looks back on his life, Williams recalls his first exposure to the horrors of religious persecution, when at the age of eight he saw a man burned for heresy. More formative experiences were to come. At fourteen, because of his gift for languages, Williams was made an assistant to the great jurist Sir Edward Coke, and during the next five years he saw enough of life at the corrupt court of King James I to question a system in which birth and money, combined with a total lack of moral principles, gave a few people complete power over the rest.
Because his continuing insistence on the rule of law made Coke a prime target for his enemies, he feared for Williams; to ensure the young man’s safety, Coke placed Williams in Charterhouse School and then at Cambridge University. Finally Coke had Williams ordained a priest of the Church of England. At first Williams identified with the Puritans, who remained in the Church but intended to cleanse it. Shortly after his marriage to Mary Barnard, however, he became a Separatist, denying the validity of the Church that had ordained him. In 1630, the couple joined a group emigrating to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but as a Separatist, Williams was soon forced to leave Boston for Salem. Eventually his radical opinions, including his insistence that the native tribes, not the king, owned the land, caused Williams to be branded a traitor and banished. Williams remembers his flight through the snowy wilderness and the kindness of the Narragansetts, who saved his life. Eventually he bought land from them and established a settlement in Providence, Rhode Island, and later he obtained a charter for the colony of Rhode Island, which guaranteed religious freedom to everyone.
I, Roger Williams ends in 1683. Providence has been rebuilt and is thriving. Moreover, Williams has made peace with himself and his deity. He now sees that he has often been as intolerant as those he criticized. Not only did he take up arms against his friends the Narragansetts, but also throughout his life he has often displayed hostility toward those who did not share his views or at least made it difficult for them to remain his friends. As he approaches death, Williams can see that he has indeed accomplished a great deal in his lifelong battle for freedom. However, his most important achievement has come in his final years, when by admitting his own flaws he has made himself worthy to meet his God.
In her works, Mary Lee Settle always stresses the need for personal honesty, for emotional and political freedom, and for a democratic acceptance of others on an individual basis. In her early southern novels, she emphasizes the stagnant, snobbish, superficial society that broke the weak and drove the strong into exile. In the Beulah Quintet and in the European novels, however, while still castigating the cruel, the selfish, and the blind, Settle increasingly emphasizes the possibility of expiation or of redemption. It is appropriate that her final book, which celebrates a heroic struggle against tyranny, should end with the hero’s victory over his own intransigent spirit.